Twenty-five years in creation, this biography records Oppenheimer's life through its many transformations. He was raised by parents who nurtured bothTwenty-five years in creation, this biography records Oppenheimer's life through its many transformations. He was raised by parents who nurtured both his intellect and his sense of social responsibility, two intersecting forces which were in play throughout his entire life. Gifted and intelligent, driven to explore and learn, he successfully transitioned from student and teacher to the administrator of Los Alamos, coordinating the efforts of thousands of minds to win the race for the atomic bomb. No sooner was that pinnacle reached than his thoughts turned to the social implications of nuclear power.
Both the discovery that the bombing of Hiroshima was militarily unnecessary and concern over the government's position on nuclear weapons drove him to attempt to influence the United States' relations with Russia during the early Cold War years. The institution which drafted his talent in the early '40's turned on him ten years later, stripping him of his security clearance (primarily due to his reservations about the development of the H-bomb) and publicly punishing him, making him, the author states, the "most prominent victim" of the McCarthy-era. It raises interesting questions about the relationship between science and government, what sacrifices democracy demands, and whether criticism of government policy can be equated to disloyalty.
A fascinating man, by turns physical and social scientist, poet, politician, and philosopher. Though aware of the suffering he had caused others, he did not allow himself to feel guilt; instead, he focused on his conviction that the increased knowledge and ability to manipulate our world, provided by scientific discovery, increase our responsibility to others.
This book was fascinating. It was the author's intent to correlate the trail of Descartes skeletal remains to that of scientific development sparked bThis book was fascinating. It was the author's intent to correlate the trail of Descartes skeletal remains to that of scientific development sparked by his writings. While the bones' two exhumations and reinterments were triggered by changing social climates, largely a result of the reason vs. faith conflict, I didn't feel that the weave was always successful.
It is not a biography; the book begins, understandably, with Descartes' death in Sweden and a review of his philosophies regarding man's quest for knowledge. To begin properly, one must relinquish all accepted beliefs, question everything, including previous authorities (such as Aristotle and the Bible), and explore the world. Once everything else was removed, the only sure concept was that there was thinking occurring (paraphrased, "I think, therefore I am"). The vast field of knowledge was open and available to everyone, not just a select, few scholars.
While some embraced this with enthusiasm, any faction that relied on the power of superstition and magical thinking (such as the church) perceived a grave threat, and the conflict of reason vs. faith was born (and more fundamentally, mind vs. body). Descartes, a devout Christian, was troubled by this unintended consequence, and rather than espousing dualism, continued to search for a third element that unified mind and body. But the fire was already lit and it spread with dazzling speed.
There is an incredible volume of scientific development and history encased in this book. Shorto weaves the thread of Descartes' impact through the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial Revolutions, theories of evolution, and the creation of new disciplines such as anthropology. Freed of the shackles of "received wisdom", scientists were relentlessly unearthing nature's mysteries by experimentation and exploration.
The conflict engendered by Descartes' writings remains largely unresolved; religion and faith continue to satisfy some basic human need, and must be reconciled with the scientific developments that debunk their myths. (The clash has become fodder for commercially successful books and films, think Dan Brown and the Illuminati.) The solution is, no doubt, personal, arising from within that third element, the "passion", or heart, that somehow provides the interface. ...more
This fascinating book explores the American republic in its infancy, from 1787 to the early 19th century. Far from being the realization of a dream, tThis fascinating book explores the American republic in its infancy, from 1787 to the early 19th century. Far from being the realization of a dream, the fragile new nation was fumbling its way through a variety of challenges, any one of which threatened to break it apart. Ellis has selected 6 significant events, or topics, to illustrate the problems faced by the revolutionary generation and the ways in which they solved them.
The blurriest episode, the first written, is the story of the Hamilton-Burr duel, and the motivation that drew each man to such extreme behavior. Ultimately, of course, a duel is about honor, and Ellis proposes that both wished to be recalled favorably by history. Other topics include: the decision to place the center of government on the shores of the Potomac (in exchange for the south agreeing to federal assumption of state war debts); the focused (and constitutional) avoidance of the issue of slavery, as a measure to prevent national suicide; Washington's farewell address to the country, denouncing partisanship and advising a neutral foreign policy; and John Adams' turbulent tenure as Washington's successor, and the decisions that shredded his lifelong friendship with Thomas Jefferson. The final section is devoted to the healing correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, post-retirement, when they reviewed together much of the history they helped to shape.
This was an enlightening read, showing what happened between the end of the Revolutionary War and what we see in our nation and government today. There were ideas and ideals, but no strategic path to bring the union safely home. Policy was negotiation over dinner, and accompanied by much disagreement and quarreling - hence the founding "fathers" become the "founding brothers", with all the mingled affection and sibling rivalry it implies....more
Fascinating and well-organized. Excerpts from much of his personal correspondence provide insight into the heart of the man, his personal anxieties anFascinating and well-organized. Excerpts from much of his personal correspondence provide insight into the heart of the man, his personal anxieties and passions, and give an appreciation for his many talents and diverse interests. It also explores the relationships between many of our country's founding fathers, who were vulnerable to insecurity and often jockeying for governmental position, and guilty of the same mud-flinging election tactics as our present-day politicians. It does much to flesh out the man drawn by history texts. Absolutely recommend it for anyone interested in colonial history and the growth of the new country, and specifically in the life of TJ....more
That this work was painstakingly researched is obvious; the author seems to have traveled extensively, reviewed published works and personal corresponThat this work was painstakingly researched is obvious; the author seems to have traveled extensively, reviewed published works and personal correspondence of key players, and read numerous volumes and articles on his subject. He illustrates how the living conditions of institutionalized mental patients during the 19th and 20th centuries, society's expectations of medicine, and the climate of the medical community contributed to extreme, and often dangerous, measures.
The burden of caring for the mentally ill wreaked havoc upon families and physicians; pressure to find curative treatment was overwhelming, leading to measures such as chemical and electrical shock, injecting alcohol into the brain, and lobotomy in all of its variations. With no one to protect them, patients were subjected to painful and disfiguring experimentation. Not only were any positive effects generally temporary, if existent, the procedures carried what would now be considered an unacceptable risk of impairment or death. Valenstein shows the constant jockeying for attention among the researchers and practitioners, each wanting maximum credit, and the ways in which the media stoked the fire. Competition was fierce and legislation virtually non-existent, creating an environment in which any opportunity, no matter how rash or dangerous, was taken.
Though the book was written 20+ years ago, Valenstein raises legitimate concerns about climate in which such atrocities could take place, one that he feels persists. Media frenzy, laws that are alternately over restrictive or too lax, medical ambition, and the frustration of a lack of permanent cure are as pervasive now as in the early 1900's....more
In August of 1819, the whaleship Essex, with a crew of twenty, set off from the coast of Nantucket on what would prove to be her final voyage. A yearIn August of 1819, the whaleship Essex, with a crew of twenty, set off from the coast of Nantucket on what would prove to be her final voyage. A year and a half later, five sailors were found adrift: emaciated, dehydrated, and half-mad, telling of an encounter with a seemingly malicious sperm whale that rammed their ship not once, but twice - and sent them on a desperate journey for survival.
This is a comprehensive and well-researched book, and begins by providing historical data about the business of whaling and Nantucket's heyday as a bustling dispatch point (it was also, of necessity, a largely matriarchal society). Sperm whales, plentiful in the Pacific Ocean, were sought for the gallons of oil that could be obtained from their boiled-down blubber and cranial cavities. A hunting excursion could take two to three years, and a successful one relied upon incredible feats of navigation and the fearless stamina to chase a 50-ton mammal from the precarious safety of a rowboat, and armed only with harpoons.
Early stories of the Essex's last journey were provided by the first mate, but nearly 60 years later the ship's cabin boy penned his own narrative, filling in gaps and offering a more complete tale. It is a story of heroism and despair, error and miscalculation, and the most painful decisions a captain could be compelled to make for the good of his crew. Philbrick provides insight on the psychologies of leadership, starvation, and knowledge of one's impending death, as well as exploring the impact of Quakerism and tribal unity on the outcome.
Vivid descriptions of the slaughtering process, as well as the matter-of-fact treatment of the survivors' cannibalism, render this book not for the squeamish. Written with the power of an adventure story, it inspires awe and respect, for both the largest mammals of the deep and the men who hunted them....more
I was first introduced to Sigmund Freud as a teenager, and, as most of his theories seemed to revolve around sex and inhibition (joyfully celebrated iI was first introduced to Sigmund Freud as a teenager, and, as most of his theories seemed to revolve around sex and inhibition (joyfully celebrated in song by Melanie Safka), I wholeheartedly embraced his ideas. It was some years later that someone commented to me, "Well, you know he got half of Vienna hooked on cocaine, right?" Well, no, I didn't, and after reading this book I'm still not convinced that's an accurate assessment.
This book explores the history of cocaine as a medicinal aid through the addictions of Freud and William Halsted, a brilliant and promising surgeon. Both men, dedicated physicians, were seduced by the drug's mood- and energy-enhancing properties, as well as its anaesthetic potential. Their slide into the abyss was subtle, occurring in an era of unrestricted medical experimentation, and in which addiction was not yet a recognized illness. Their careers were jeopardized, with differing consequences; Freud's crash on the bottom resulted in total abstinence and recovery. Halsted struggled with a dual addiction to cocaine and morphine, and his path was more like the winning toss in a stone-skipping challenge: multiple hard bounces along the surface before ultimately sinking.
Freud did share this miracle drug with his patients; he mistakenly believed it to be harmless, and prescribed it as both an antidote to morphine dependency and a relief for hysteria. On more than one occasion the results were disastrous, but the addict's forte is self-deception and he did not immediately recognize the truth.
I enjoyed this book from a biographical standpoint, but felt a disconnect between the physicians' histories and that of the drug. While I found it well-written, interesting, and having excellent historical perspective, I wanted to know more about the men and their accomplishments, with or without the influence of cocaine. It was hard to grasp a solid position from the author, and the interesting question he posed late in the book, whether they were brilliant in spite of or because of their addiction, remained largely unexplored....more
The author grew up in the shadow of Mt. Vernon, surrounded by the Washington mythology. Spurred by an ambition to read, in their entirety, "The PapersThe author grew up in the shadow of Mt. Vernon, surrounded by the Washington mythology. Spurred by an ambition to read, in their entirety, "The Papers of George Washington", he uncovered a new goal - to present a biography that would allow the reader an understanding of Washington's personality, motives, and vulnerabilities.
Though a portion is devoted to his early life, the substance of the book begins with Washington's first foray into the public eye - as a British messenger, sent into the Ohio Valley to remind French interlopers of who owned the continent. Superficially, the author moves through textbook history and the colonists' increasing resistance - the Stamp Act, the Proclamation of 1763, the Boston Tea Party. In more depth, though, he explores Washington's frame of mind: insecurity over his lack of formal education, his aspirations to wealth and his rigid attention to detail, and the conflict surrounding his love for Sally Fairfax, his best friend's wife.
The trajectory of service to his country was not a straight line - Washington moved in and out of public life several times. He was often at odds to balance his yearning for the role of simple country squire with his convictions about the future of the new nation. Going beyond the winning of independence, he saw the need for a new type of government - one with centralized, federal, powers that could unify the country while still maintaining and respecting the sovereignty of the individual states. He retired several times, becoming a master of eloquent exits, but was always lured back by the desire to help nurture America through its fragile infancy and the recognition of his own role in history.
For the most part, the book is very readable, though there are some passages so thick with information that full comprehension requires more than one pass. Overall, it's a fascinating look through the legend to the man....more
If you're familiar with the now-closed Walter Reed Hospital, but don't know for what the man was famous, this book will answer your questions. In theIf you're familiar with the now-closed Walter Reed Hospital, but don't know for what the man was famous, this book will answer your questions. In the United States' infancy, yellow fever was feared much as ebola is today, the main difference being that you were more likely to actually contract it. Infected mosquitoes were transported on slave and trade ships from West Africa and Cuba; the US was virgin territory, its inhabitants having never been exposed to the virus or developed any immunity. It took hold with a vengeance; sometimes boasting a mortality rate as high as 80%, yellow fever epidemics were responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 people during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Walter Reed, along with a team of doctors hand-picked by the Surgeon General, spent months researching the disease in Cuba; his crowning achievement was identifying the striped house mosquito as the vector, a finding received with some skepticism by the medical community. The research carried a high price tag - in an era of limited technology, experimentation on humans was an unfortunate necessity; contracting the disease was the sought-after success, and volunteers knew they could well become martyrs to science. Yellow fever was, and remains, incurable; several members of Reed's team allowed themselves to be bitten by infected mosquitoes; some died, and others were damaged for life.
Eradication of the disease in North America meant eliminating mosquito populations, enforcing stricter quarantines, and passing legislation for the management of standing water. Long after Reed's death, a vaccine was finally developed, earning its creator a Nobel Prize; however, its propensity to cause serious neurological side-effects hindered its acceptance, and today it is only recommended for those traveling to countries in which yellow fever still runs rampant.
The author ends her book on a cautionary note - while yellow fever does not currently pose a threat in the United States, it continues to cause epidemics in Africa and South America. International travel and the resiliency of the virus allow for the possibility of it being transported onto American soil again. Crosby spares no ugly detail in the description of the disease's course, and one can only hope that today's palliative measures would provide both relief and a better prospect for recovery.
Very thoroughly researched and detailed, clearly presented - excellent read.
A good biography must be more than a summary of dates and events; the best would not only relate an individual's achievements, but also his motivatingA good biography must be more than a summary of dates and events; the best would not only relate an individual's achievements, but also his motivating influences and internal conflicts. Because John Quincy Adams kept a very detailed, and intimate, diary for 70 years of his life, the author had a wealth of information upon which to draw, the result being a dynamic exploration of the sixth president.
Well-traveled from a young age and educated in European schools, Adams found it difficult to later settle into Harvard life and the tedium of a law practice. His relationship with politics could be termed one of reluctant compulsion - consistently disavowing any interest in public service, he nevertheless pursued it relentlessly, and with great skill. His time as a US representative to Russia and England, two terms as Monroe's secretary of state, and a long stint in the House of Representatives during his later years were productive and earned him great respect. His ineffective presidency seems like a brief dip in an otherwise successful career.
Personally, he was plagued with issues of self-esteem, never believing that his efforts were appreciated by the public, or that he even merited respect. Despite going through periods in which he pared down his slumber to four hours a night, he was never satisfied with his level of productivity, and frequently berated himself for wasting time. His greatest desire was to contribute in the areas of literature or science, a dream not realized despite his best efforts. He suffered bouts of crippling depression, but managed to elude the familial curse of alcoholism, which claimed both of his brothers and two of his sons.
His writings are inspiring - though he was never fully satisfied with his achievements, his quest for self-improvement, his driving ambition to have a positive impact on future generations, and the lengths to which he would go in an effort to meet his own expectations were impressive.
This book captures the full essence of the man, his public persona and his private struggles. Excellent, absorbing read....more
It is long, densely packed with information, and at times almost ponderous, and there were times I wanted to set this book aside (temporarily) to pickIt is long, densely packed with information, and at times almost ponderous, and there were times I wanted to set this book aside (temporarily) to pick up something lighter and quicker. I resisted that urge, concerned that I would lose the thread of the history, or worse, might opt to abandon the book altogether. I was richly rewarded for my persistence.
In what must have been a mountainous undertaking, the author combed through thousands of the Adams' personal documents, correspondence within the family and to both friends and enemies. Their writings are detailed and candid, providing an intimate history of the American Revolution and its aftermath, and the early struggles of the United States. More importantly, they offer a powerful vision of John Adams, farmer, diplomate, statesman, and visionary.
Adams' ascent to the presidency seems almost accidental; a well-educated and hardworking New Englander, he took on any assignment put to him - traveling to Holland, France, and England to secure both loans and recognition for the new nation. He stood in George Washington's shadow as vice-president, seeing the position for what it was - ornamental, and himself as the man who was both "everything and nothing". Anxiously riding the storm of the newborn partisan warfare, he found himself elected president, surrounded by duplicitous cabinet members and libelous editorials. Accused of monarchist leanings, vanity, and even derangement, he held firmly to his values, sure that independence, and the union, would prevail.
His term was not without its downfalls and mistakes, but his contributions were significant: an established navy, an expanded and powerful judiciary branch, and successful delivery of a peace treaty with France during its most turbulent period. He left office proud of his achievements, but with a sense of being undervalued by his country.
Interesting also are perspectives on other players of the time - Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are not portrayed with the usual rose-colored enthusiasm. In fact, their mean-spirited sides are clearly evident in their correspondence and their efforts to undermine Adams at every opportunity. In the end, Adams held no grudges.
Though slow-going at the outset, this was an excellent biography, well worth the effort....more
This is an excellent book about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and two men whose lives were entwined with it - one later hailed as aThis is an excellent book about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and two men whose lives were entwined with it - one later hailed as a hero, the other as a villain. That the world's fair took place at all was a result of gritty determination and seemingly divine intervention, so great and numerous were its obstacles. The dreamers prevailed, and created a mesmerizing spectacle known as "The White City", an attraction capable of drawing more than 1 million visitors in a single day.
Chicago was granted permission to host the fair in 1890; the city was not highly esteemed by the rest of the country, as it was known chiefly for its slaughterhouses and coal-blackened streets. Politicians in other cities, such as New York, considered it to be a cultural disaster. It became a matter of pride, both municipal and national, to prove that Chicago could stage something more impressive than Paris' Exposition Universelle (1900), and "out-Eiffel" the Eiffel Tower. But times were difficult - the country was struggling in a depression, financial institutions failed daily, and developing labor unions encouraged workers to strike.
Daniel Hudson Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted took upon the enormous task of planning and supervising construction. With just under two years until the dedication ceremony, they had to contend with poor soil quality, storms, fires, and the deaths of beloved, and essential, colleagues. Hands tied by numerous committees, every decision was laborious and time-consuming; it seemed an impossible task.
At the same time, a man named Herman Mudgett (alias Dr. Henry Holmes) had his own interest in the fair's progress. A polygamist and swindler, he built a hotel within a short distance of the fair grounds - complete with gas chambers, air-tight vaults for suffocating his victims, a dissecting table, and lime pits. Many young women that traveled to Chicago in search of independence and subsequently disappeared are believed to have fallen prey to Mudgett. The fair also provided a steady supply of victims. Mudgett is recognized as the first serial killer in the United States, convicted and executed for 4 murders. He claimed responsibility for 27, and may have actually committed nearly 200.
It was a time of exponential growth in the country, and it is fascinating to discover that certain products (such as Cracker Jack and shredded wheat) and groundbreaking inventions, that we take for granted, first appeared at this exposition. Additionally, the cooperative relationship between Burnham and Olmsted, a landscape architect, provided the foundation for modern city planning. The book is rich in detail, well-written, very engrossing. Wonderful!...more
Robert Whitaker's primary question in this book is: If today's society is the beneficiary of a psychopharmacological revolution, why are so many AmeriRobert Whitaker's primary question in this book is: If today's society is the beneficiary of a psychopharmacological revolution, why are so many Americans collecting permanent disability payments due to mental illness? He delves deeply into the history, and efficacy, of drugs available to treat everything from mild depression to full-blown schizophrenia - with unsettling, and sometimes disturbing, results.
After the introduction of Thorazine in the 1950's, public understanding of psychiatry's role was altered; medication meant legitimacy and respect, and the prescription requirement made a trip to a "shrink" a necessity for relief. Mutually beneficial relationships between pharmaceutical companies, governing bodies, and physicians fueled a booming business - as the frenzy of laboratory activity churned out new and improved drugs, the diagnoses were expanded, and more people were classified as "ill" and needing this type of treatment.
Another appropriate subtitle for this book might be Michael Crichton's statement, in Jurassic Park, that "Life will find a way." Medication is used to alter neurotransmitters, but the brain quickly adapts and compensates, resulting in a gradual reduction of effectiveness. Sometimes a dosage increase solves the problem, temporarily, but typically a patient ends up on a cocktail of drugs, and still new problems emerge - suicidal impulses, bipolar disorder, tics and other muscular disturbances, and cognitive impairment. Instead of treating an existing "chemical imbalance", a still-unsubstantiated theory, the medications create one. Studies have repeatedly shown that favorable long term outcomes are highest for patients that remain unmedicated.
And, of course, of growing concern is the new generation of patients being identified in our "drug-free school zones" - given the ways in which these chemicals are known to alter the adult brain, one can only imagine the impact on one that is still developing.
Thorough, well written, and thought-provoking, this book should cause anyone considering the use of a psychotropic medication to think long and hard about it....more
Richard III has a bad reputation - portrayed by the Tudors, Thomas More, and Shakespeare as a ruthless murderer, clawing his way to the top of the royRichard III has a bad reputation - portrayed by the Tudors, Thomas More, and Shakespeare as a ruthless murderer, clawing his way to the top of the royal heap; he was described as physically deformed, which was believed to be an outward manifestation of his inner, twisted evil. History accuses him of treachery and deceit, pettiness, greed - even arranging (or personally seeing to) the execution of his nephews to protect his claim to the throne. But the authors point out that "History is written by the winners", and they hope to draw a connection between the discovery of his remains and a more favorable version of his life, with mixed results.
Chapters alternate between the story of Richard's life, from his birth to his brutal death on the battlefield, and the story of the 2012 archaeological dig, in a parking lot in Leicester, that uncovered his skeleton. Carbon-14 dating and DNA analysis confirmed the find, and an examination of his skull and bones provided chilling insight into his last moments. The discovery was a long shot - no one knew where the grave was, or if he was even still in it - a real feather in the cap of any Richard III Society member.
It's hard to say what the remains illuminated, other than manner of death and severe scoliosis. In an effort to complete the character assessment, Langley turned to handwriting analysis and psychological profiling. Not surprisingly, the results supported her belief that he probably wasn't such a bad guy. But despite the authors' predictions, it seems unlikely that "history will be rewritten".
It is interesting, and certainly appropriate, to evaluate Richard (and his behavior) as a product of his times, and the book aids in that regard. But there remains a powerful uncertainty, a key question by which we may judge the character of this man. The darkest mark on Richard's reign centers around his nephews, who were entrusted to his care for their safety. It is established that the Princes disappeared from the Tower and were never seen again - but their fate has never been conclusively determined. The king's bones will not provide any answer to that....more